In recent years, the once-esoteric term “evidence-based reading instruction” has spread beyond research institutions to become part of the vernacular of classroom teachers tasked with teaching young children to read.
This increasing popularity of evidence- or science-based reading instruction, which refers to practices proven successful in improving reading achievement, goes hand in hand with efforts in many states to legislate mandatory support for teacher training and instruction in these approaches. As part of this legislation, some states provide lists of approved providers of evidence-based reading methods.
Orton-Gillingham is among them, according to the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education, which trains teachers in the approach, which was once used primarily with children who have dyslexia but is now being used more broadly.
That’s because it contains the five components of evidence-based instruction identified by two national panels on reading and early-literacy instruction: teaching phonemic awareness, systematic phonics lessons, promoting reading fluency, vocabulary learning, and reading comprehension. Underpinning this reading instruction is its multisensory approach, whereby instructors use sight, hearing, touch and movement to help students connect language with letters and words.
In simplest terms, Orton-Gillingham, like other evidence-based reading instruction methods, breaks down reading and spelling into smaller tasks involving letters and sounds and then builds on these over time. Critical to the Orton-Gillingham method is that these tasks happen in a “direct and explicit” manner, meaning that students learn the structure of a given sound or word and how it fits into the greater framework of the English language.
The approach also emphasizes the importance of teaching strategies “sequentially,” starting with the more common and predictable sound-symbol connections in English before moving on to more advanced and less predictable concepts, of which there are many.
“English is a deeply opaque language,” said Meredith Scott, a 1st grade teacher at Mountain Mahogany Community School, a charter school in Albuquerque, N.M.
Embedding multisensory strategies into the process of learning to read makes the complicated language more accessible to emerging readers, Scott explained. It’s also what distinguishes Orton-Gillingham from other evidence-based approaches.
Flooding the brain with multisensory messages
Every Orton-Gillingham lesson explicitly involves multiple senses: sight, hearing, touch, and movement, explained Scott. Whether learning to master decoding or encoding of words, students using the Orton-Gillingham method do so by seeing, saying, sounding out, and writing letters.
“It’s giving your brain more information,” Scott said. “The hope is that the more ways we approach and explore learning [reading], the more it can stick with us.”
During an Orton-Gillingham lesson, students might tap their fingers or pound their fists as they say sounds and words; write words directly onto sand- or whipped cream-filled paper plates; or place their hands strategically over their throats and identify the type of consonant they’re saying aloud depending on the vibrations made by their vocal chords.
“All of that [sensory input] is going to help with repetition and automaticity. It also adds a level of fun and play that I think is really important for kids,” Scott said. “You’re pushing them, but in a way that is highly attractive to them.”
The larger question, of course, is: Does Orton-Gillingham help students become better readers?
Research remains sparse
Research into Orton-Gillingham’s effectiveness remains sparse, despite the methodology’s lengthy history. It was developed in the 1930s by neuropsychiatrist Samuel T. Orton and educator-psychologist Anna Gillingham and, initially, used primarily as an intervention for students with dyslexia and related reading delays.
In analyses comparing Orton-Gillingham to other reading interventions for students deemed “with or at risk for word-level reading disabilities,” results were mixed. The first such meta-analysis, in 2006, found insufficient research to draw any significant conclusions. A broader-based meta-analysis in 2021 concluded that, while the effect sizes were not statistically significant, they showed “promise” that the method could positively impact student outcomes.
Despite these inconclusive findings, educators who use the method with fidelity report positive results. For instance, Mountain Mahogany Community School’s 2022 reading proficiency scores reached 50 percent on its state assessment when it began implementing Orton-Gillingham, which was 30 percent better than 2018 results.
“Once students learn the foundational skills [in Orton-Gillingham], they are able to move on to more complex skills knowing they have started to ‘crack the code’ and are scholars working towards strong reading and writing skills,” said Scott. “This empowers students to see themselves as smart, capable students who can use what they know to tackle new, more complex concepts.”